“This is my people. This is all I know,” said Brianna Smith, as she stood in the place that had become her haven, a converted laser-tag venue in New Orleans East that was renovated five years ago into the Living School New Orleans. 

The high school’s staff and students took pride in the school’s unconventional learning space, with its high ceilings, bright walls, and thriving garden next door. 

Though this week should have been celebratory, Smith, a member of the Living School’s Class of 2024, had mixed emotions.

Days before she and her classmates were set to receive their diplomas in Dillard University’s historic Lawless Memorial Chapel, they were helping teachers pack up familiar classrooms, to prepare for the school to be shuttered.

In December, the Orleans Parish School Board voted to close the Living School at the end of this school year.

Despite impressive graduation results last year, the school’s other indicators weren’t strong enough to earn a new contract and stay open.

In a city where all public schools are now charters – with closures and start-ups as bedrock parts of the charter model – the shuttering of Living School prompted conversations about how a start-up school’s success should be measured, monitored, and supported by NOLA Public Schools. 

In December, as the school board voted to close both Lafayette and Living schools, it felt like closure was the only tool in the district’s toolkit. But in subsequent months, the board reversed its decision for Lafayette and reinvented it as a school directly run by the district. Some wondered if the Living School model also deserved a second look. 

Jarmarrie Gordon, a sophomore and student leader, is furious about the Living School closure. “I am honestly angry that a complete stranger could take a look at our test scores and act like those scores defined our students,” she said. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens.

Look at last spring, they say, when Living School graduated 94 percent of the school’s inaugural class, including all seniors with special education plans. It was a moment of triumph, a goal reached through the hard work of both school staff and students. Though stunning. the graduation rate from 2023 couldn’t help to bolster the school’s performance score this year, because state certification takes a year.

Up until last year, the school’s standardized test scores had held steady at a C. Then last spring, they dropped to failing, resulting in an F letter grade from the state. 

By the metrics at hand, Living had failed. “Certainly we have work to do. We did not have a good year last year in terms of our standardized test scores,” CEO Stefin Pasternak told the board in December. “That’s an anomaly.” 

For the Living School, facing its first contract renewal, the anomaly could not have hit at a worse time.

Because the closure of Living School wasn’t entirely due to the dip in scores. Each year, some failing charter schools earn Ds and Fs and remain open in the district. Performance is only closely scrutinized in contract-renewal years. If Living School’s contract wasn’t in play, the school would likely still be open. 

With the graduation-rate lag and five-year charter contracts, high schools like Living – so-called “slow growth charters” that start with a freshman class and add a grade level each year – come up for their contract vote before they’re able to count their inaugural graduating class.

It seemed especially unfair to parent Connie Smith that the state didn’t count graduation achievements for Living while including scores for ninth-graders, whose poor test scores should be attributed to low-performing K-8 schools, she believed, not Living School. “That one year of low scores shouldn’t be the factor in closing down a school that’s been flourishing,” she said. 

In tears: Shantell Alfred, the Living School’s college and career advisor, and her son, a tearful Joseph Davenport IV. Davenport, a senior at the Living School, asked school members to support, not shut down, the school and acknowledge its achievements to date. “I would like you to say, ‘This school is making a difference. I want to help them do that,'” he’d said. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

How long does it take to create a new school?

This spring’s conversations about Living School have also centered about how long, realistically, it takes to launch a charter school from scratch. 

Not everything within a school progresses at the same pace. Even five years into its tenure, some aspects of the Living School – including the soccer and basketball teams’ inaugural seasons – had just begun.

Other parts of the school felt more advanced, as if they were on their way to becoming crystallized Living School traditions. In teacher Jimmy Luttrell’s advanced-carpentry class, students bragged about building musical instruments from scratch. Language arts students created a book about New Orleans artifacts for teacher Katie Wills Evans. A science class took a school bus to the Common Ground disaster-justice headquarters in the Lower 9th Ward to install intricate water-retention and distribution systems that were designed in Living School engineering class and built during carpentry classes.

Then, this week, it was over. 

Outside the Living School mini-mall off Bullard Avenue, biology teacher Rahn Broady and his students dug up the trees, flowers and herbs they had planted there, sending the greenery home with classmates and community members.

On Friday, Living School teachers will help to straighten graduates’ mortarboards, as Brittany Smith and other seniors walk toward the stage. Other than that, the teachers’ jobs are done – literally. 

Like their students, teachers are determining which school is the best fit for them, for the fall.

The choice is difficult for both students and staff. They’d become accustomed to a unique learning environment at Living School. They built dioramas about climate change, learned engineering by building models in woodshop, and got a deep lesson in the political history and horticulture of New Orleans within the region by creating a Banana Museum in the garden outside. 

The school became known as a place that was a little offbeat and accepting of differences. “It feels more welcoming than other schools, because at other schools, you feel more like a number than a student,” said student Khloe Jones.

Jones didn’t know what next year will hold, at a new school. “It’s going to be hard to fit in. And not really be seen, for real,” she said. 

Star student Jamaj Miller, 15, a sophomore, in Broady’s classroom. Because of family mobility, he had rarely stayed in schools for more than a year until until he’d arrived at Living School, where he had planned to stay until graduation. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Teachers, too, are unsure about what lies ahead. “We’ve had a lot of teachers here who’ve said, ‘’This is my last stop,’” said Luttrell, the STEM and woodworking teacher, who was known for leading many hands-on projects with students through the school’s woodshop.

The school no doubt attracted teachers who wanted a refreshing change. 

Luttrell recounted what he hears from colleagues. “They’ll say, ‘I did 20 years of education, I got tired of it, I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I came here as kind of my last stop and I’m going to do something else now.’’”

Students and staff alike feel a lingering sense of unfairness about the situation. 

That’s partly because Pasternak believes that Living School could have scored the same way and stayed open under the revised Orleans Parish charter-school standards, which take effect next year.

A committee of administrators and educators including Pasternak spent months helping to rewrite those standards, with an eye to equity.

But during the December meeting, when Pasternak asked about judging the Living School through the approved, but not-yet-implemented standards, he was shot down. One after another, the line of board members sitting at the dais repeated the same point: that they couldn’t consider the new standards with the current ones in place.

At the same meeting, Pasternak earnestly asked the board to consider whether his “200 students would be better off” if the board supported the superintendent’s decision to close Living School.

“We don’t need to be shutting down schools like Living School that are doing way more ambitious” programming and student support, Pasternak said. “I implore you to give us one more year.”

His plea was rejected.

Biology teacher Rahn Broady, in the Living School’s garden, which includes a student-requested “Banana Museum,” with several varieties of bananas and a series of hand-made, hand-painted markers describe the banana plants and their nutritional and horticultural qualities. The markers are carefully outline the city’s rich history with the fruit and its ties with the government of Honduras, back in the days when Standard Fruit Company (now Dole) and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) were based in New Orleans. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Visual learning and individualized attention

At Living’s student fair in December, just after the school board had voted to close the school, students were abuzz about their first-semester projects in audio, science, and art, all part of the school’s Winter Exhibition.

“They’re saying our LEAP scores are bad,” Senior Byren Coleman said. “But check this out, come swing through and see all the good work we’ve been doing. We’re really productive.”

In the exhibition, one student explained the stark effects of climate change through her display — a globe divided in half, with a green oasis on one side and brown dried-out plant life on the other. For both the students who make the exhibits and those who view them, project-based learning has been found to keep children with different learning styles engaged and in school. 

“It’s so much easier for me to learn, because I am a visual learner and we do visual-learning things, like projects and stuff,” said student Saturn Paul, who said that she thrived at Living because of focused attention from staff. “That’s where I really need it from,” she said. “I receive a lot of positive energy and motivating energy.”

The result was a one-of-a-kind environment where Saturn Paul could more easily absorb knowledge, because she could be herself and relax her mind, she said. 

“I just feel safe in that way too, like I can learn without being judged. I have teachers who actually genuinely care about me.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...